Shannon and Matt wanted to see a movie. It was date night, and on date nights, they see movies. Shannon turned to her most trusted moviegoing adviser. Matt turned to his.
“It had over a 93 percent! I think it was actually 97 percent,” says Shannon as she exits a Saturday-evening screening of Detroit at Los Angeles’s Glendale Galleria mall. “I just trust Rotten Tomatoes.”
“I hate Rotten Tomatoes,” says Matt, Shannon’s date who works in home video marketing for a major studio. “I think it’s helping ruin the movie industry. I work in the movie industry. … I hear too many people say, ‘I won’t see anything under 80 percent.’ But the way that they determine the rating is [that] people now game the system.”
Matt trusts filmmakers and the word around town when he makes his decision. Shannon uses a website that aggregates reviews and tabulates a score that represents a movie’s “freshness.” Shannon sees consensus in math. Matt sees a fraudulent system.
“Studios are gaming the system,” he says. “Rotten Tomatoes is gaming the system, and the reviewers that Rotten Tomatoes uses, some of them tell Rotten Tomatoes whether or not to give a positive or negative [review]. People are relying on it too much.”
Shannon, naturally, disagrees.
“If you like movies of a certain genre, then you can understand that, ‘OK, [New York Times film critic] Manohla Dargis isn’t gonna like it.’ And so, if you’re a critical-thinking consumer of how the system works, then you can use it to figure out what you wanna see. And I use it every week!”
Somehow, Shannon and Matt managed to agree on a movie. They saw Detroit, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow, in its first week of limited release. When they caught it, the film did indeed have a 97 percent score. Since expanding to a wide release, Detroit’s Rotten Tomatoes score has dipped to 84 percent freshness, averaged from 164 reviews. (60 percent is considered “passing,” delineating a “fresh” score.) But it’s still the 13th best-reviewed film of the summer, according to the site.
And yet, Detroit is considered one of the summer's biggest failures. Which, in this moviegoing climate, makes it a compelling outlier in a narrative that has arisen around Rotten Tomatoes’ impact on the movie industry in 2017. The movie—financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and made by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the creative team behind the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty—was considered a gamble in Hollywood circles despite its pedigree. The docudrama captures a dark and violent incident of police brutality during the riots in the Motor City in 1967. It is not an easy or uplifting movie; there are no superheroes, nor really any heroes at all. Selling it to audiences is a difficult task. Which is further complicated given that it represents Ellison’s first bid to distribute a movie—that is, market and physically deliver the movie to theaters around the world in lieu of a major studio. After years of financing and producing films for celebrated, benefactor-seeking auteurs like Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson, Ellison is attempting to become a studio in and of herself. The infamously press-shy scion of the billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison, she was recently described as difficult and mercurial as her business acumen has come under question. But her reputation as a producer is intact: She is steadfastly committed to supporting great film artists like Bigelow.
Detroit had little precedent for massive financial success, particularly in Hollywood's current zero-sum climate. It did, however, have one thing in its favor: critical goodwill. That does not appear to have meant much since its release. Ellison's latest project has been a low-key fiasco. The film’s release date—curiously positioned in the late-summer wasteland of August—was hastily bumped up a week to July 28 with little warning to audiences or critics. After a promising limited release, it expanded to 3,000 screens but sold just $7 million in tickets. For a movie that cost a reported $34 million to produce, and perhaps nearly just as much to market, this could be described as a modest disaster. In its second weekend, it slipped by nearly 60 percent, totaling a little more than $13 million in 17 days. It will now slowly disappear from theaters. Despite Ellison’s best intentions and Matt and Shannon’s concerted efforts, Detroit is done.
But in spite of its failure, Detroit is a counterweight to an old saw that was dusted off this summer movie season. “Rotten Tomatoes Is Causing Hollywood’s Latest Existential Crisis” a HuffPost headline screamed two weeks ago. The column detailed an oddly triumphal chapter in a confusing media-managed narrative coming out of Hollywood’s excuse factory. The headline was spurred by The Emoji Movie, a poorly reviewed movie featuring animated phone icons, which had a successful box-office performance in spite of those poor reviews. This was deemed a victory over the tyranny of the number that appears beside a movie’s title on Rotten Tomatoes. (In this case, 8 percent.)
In The Emoji Movie and Detroit—which represent perhaps as wide a chasm between films released this summer in terms of audience, execution, and quality—we can see a dueling false equivalency. Rotten Tomatoes neither saved Detroit, nor did it torpedo The Emoji Movie. And still, we were told repeatedly this summer that it should have done exactly that.
The movie business is in a state of flux. The box office in 2017 is in a free fall. AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the world’s biggest theater chain, reported a less-than-inspiring financial outlook for the rest of the year, which led to a plummeting stock price. The four major chains are experiencing a $1.3 billion loss in value. Intellectual property has come to rule the day at the major studios, and with it has come the erosion of midtier movies (and midtier success stories). Streaming services are threatening attention spans. Netflix is gobbling up original films around the margins and slowly moving into big-picture productions. This summer, the failure of a handful of films that studios were depending upon to fill out their ledger—titles like Transformers: The Last Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Mummy, and Baywatch—induced industrywide panic and fear. Many of the year’s best-performing movies have succeeded in a fashion that was inexplicable to the studios and in defiance of accepted truisms around town. So the studios turned to a predictable, shopworn straw man. After Baywatch pulled in just $27.7 million in its Memorial Day opening weekend, a representative from Paramount spoke publicly about the reasons for the film’s failure.
“The reviews really hurt the film, which scored great in test screenings. We were all surprised,” Paramount’s Megan Colligan, the president of worldwide marketing and distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It is a brand that maybe relied on a positive critical reaction more than we recognized.”
The “brand,” in this case, is predicated upon the lightly comic film adaptation of the syndicated lifeguard drama that has not aired in America since 2001. That brand, as they say, is not strong.
“There’s no good way to battle it,” said Colligan about the film’s abysmal 19 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. One assumes making a better film is not in the playbook.
Fifteen days later, Tom Cruise’s bid for a new expanded franchise to call his own—Universal’s long-gestating “Dark Universe” monster-movies reboot—wilted with The Mummy’s weak first weekend domestic box office gross of $31.7 million against a budget of $125 million. Rotten Tomatoes delivered a 16 percent score to the movie—not fresh. Mummy director Alex Kurtzman went on the record about the film’s negative critical response.
“Obviously, that’s disappointing to hear,” Kurtzman told Business Insider when asked about the criticism. “The only gauge that I really use to judge it is having just traveled around the world and hearing the audiences in the theaters. This is a movie that I think is made for audiences and in my experience, critics and audiences don’t always sing the same song.”
Later Kurtzman sang a familiar tune.
“I’m not making movies for them,” he said of critics. “Would I love them to love it? Of course, everybody would, but that’s not really the endgame. We made a film for audiences and not critics so my great hope is they will find it and they will appreciate it.”
This is the perilous state of a whinging industry: blame for the misguided choices of corporations falling at the feet of critics. What has been the critical community’s response to the “for the fans, not the critics” line of reasoning?
“What that phrase actually means is, ‘We’re startled to see that people aren’t as stupid as we thought they were,’” says New York Times critic A.O. Scott. “And it’s basically what studios and filmmakers say when they’ve been caught underestimating the intelligence of the viewing public. And supposedly no one ever went broke doing that, as P.T. Barnum famously said. But sometimes it happens that people don’t want what’s being sold, and it’s funny to hear that, ‘I don’t make movies for the critics; I make them for the fans,’ which is absurd from every direction.
“I don’t think any filmmaker makes movies for the critics. And I don’t think the most critically beloved filmmaker goes to work thinking, ‘Oh boy. I really hope [the L.A. Times’ Kenneth] Turan likes this.’ Or Manohla Dargis or ... whoever! It’s just an absurd motive.”
Some critics are even more straightforward about the excuse.
“It’s a really transparent way of saying, ‘We made a really shitty movie and everyone has called us out for it, and we’re trying to spin it,’” says David Ehrlich, senior critic for Indiewire. “I think spin is what’s made a comeback more than anything else.”
What criticism can do to help or to hurt the movie business has been adjudicated for years with little historical data but a great deal of emotional history.
“When 300 came out, a bunch of critics hated it and it was a huge hit,” Scott says. “I remember Peter Bart wrote an article in Variety about how this shows critics are out of touch, this shows critics are irrelevant. And a few years later there was another [argument]. There are these perennial, I’m not sure if ‘ideas’ is even the word, but these assumptions about criticism or arguments about criticism. Or announcements that criticism is finally done. And is irrelevant.”
For a century, movies have been criticized, and thus promoted to the general public. But as the industry shrinks and the standards of success are redefined nearly every week, filmmakers and their corporate partners have resurrected an old villain.
“It posits a false distinction, I think, too,” says Scott, who published a searching handbook of sorts last year called Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. “That critics are people whose taste and interests are completely different from or opposed to the interests of fans. Which isn’t true either. Critics are people who like movies and are looking for good movies to see and trying to communicate what they’ve seen to other people who like movies. If the public doesn’t want what you’re selling, you can’t blame the critics for that.”
But then, this has also been a strange and often miraculous year at the movies, one that has by turns disproved conventional wisdom and affirmed a flagging medium.
The year’s two highest-grossing films so far—Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman—feature female leads, an unspoken no-no among many studio executives for film franchises. The most profitable movie of the year—Get Out—is a sociological horror-thriller helmed by an African American first-time director with a background in sketch comedy. The biggest animated movie of the year—Boss Baby—often resembled an absurdist skewering of a certain petulant, egotistical commander-in-chief. Girls Trip and Baby Driver, two films without preexisting universes released alongside a horde of IP monsters, are among the biggest critical and financial success stories of the year. In many cases, what the critics loved, audiences have, too. So why is Rotten Tomatoes a target?
Let’s start by defining Rotten Tomatoes’ mission.
“It’s to serve fans,” says Jeff Voris, vice president at Rotten Tomatoes. “Our goal is to get you to the entertainment, the film and TV shows, that you, as a fan, want to experience.”
That refrain sounds familiar. Voris is consistently on-message about the company’s pursuits.
“Well, box-office performance is for analysts and studios to talk about,” he says. “For us, it really is about, ‘Are we serving fans?’”
Rotten Tomatoes, which was created and launched 19 years ago by a UC Berkeley grad named Senh Duong, has been owned by a series of media entities over the years. Today, it possesses a diverse identity: It is a corporately owned marketing bullhorn for the film industry; it is also a way station for mainstream American film criticism collecting the works of some 3,000 active writers; and, according to Voris, it is an independent editorial operation. Six curators comb the internet to cull reviews, reading for context and interpreting scores (when none are available) to settle the final numerical critical tally for the latest movies.
Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company comprises two media giants with film arms: In partnership, NBCUniversal and Time Warner purchased the site via its ticket-selling arm Fandango in February 2016. The companies own 70 percent and 30 percent of Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. This has created a unique marriage of corporate production and publicly promoted criticism of said product. Universal makes movies and then uses its ticket-selling company to show the public on Fandango whether critics liked its movie. So when companies cite Rotten Tomatoes as a factor in a film’s failure, it is, essentially, a self-own. Nevertheless, the company’s influence is growing.
A recent profile in the L.A. Times indicates that Rotten Tomatoes has some data to brag about: 36 percent of U.S. moviegoers look at the site before seeing a film. That number is up 8 percent from 2014, according to box-office-tracking firm National Research Group.
“For a picture that doesn’t have a brand name and doesn’t have movie stars," producer Donna Gigliotti (Hidden Figures) told the Times, “Rotten Tomatoes scores can enhance the box office.”
The site had 13.6 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore. And in its growth, Rotten Tomatoes has come to represent a faceless avatar of criticism to the American public, if not the intellectual act of dissecting a movie. Critics are keenly aware of this. They sense Rotten Tomatoes’ reach while downplaying their own power at the box office.
“I don’t think my work has much of an impact negatively on the box office of large commercial movies,” Scott says. “I think that my reviews have had an impact, positively, on the box office of small movies. I think, in all modesty, that my review of Moonlight got a lot of people to see that movie.”
Moonlight was famously one of the best-reviewed films of 2016, landing on a near-perfect 98 percent score based on 288 reviews. So how does Rotten Tomatoes arrive at that score?
“There’s a standard procedure,” Voris says. “The way it works is that reviews can come into the system in one of two ways. Either a critic can put the review in themselves, and if they do they put it in, they choose whether it’s fresh or rotten. If it’s one that we get, we have a curation team here, and the process works this way: We go and find the reviews, read or watch them depending on the format they’re in, and then a curator will make a determination if a film is fresh or rotten.”
Critics confirmed this with me. “In the vast majority of cases, I will manually upload my review to Rotten Tomatoes,” Ehrlich says, “so I am the person responsible for choosing whether or not it’s designated as fresh or rotten.”
How much this influences audiences depends on who you ask. Based on a series of informal interviews with moviegoers at two different Los Angeles theater chains—Glendale Galleria, owned and operated by Pacific Theaters, and Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas outpost—the results were mixed. Here are some typical responses:
- “When I see a rating,” says Matt, 21, “I can’t help but put it in my head. ...Once you can put a number, a metric on a piece of data and it’s attached, then people don’t question where the data comes from. Siskel and Ebert would use ‘thumbs up/thumbs down.’ At least you knew that was coming from Siskel & Ebert, right? You could say Siskel & Ebert did that, but Rotten Tomatoes becomes an algorithm. And right now people are like, ‘Oh, an algorithm! It has math involved. It must be …’ But it’s just an aggregate of opinions. It can inhibit discovery.”
- “It can kill curiosity,” says animation director Doug Sweetland (Storks). “I’ll be like, ‘Ah! That looks like a fun trailer—oh! It’s [at] 18 percent.’ I’ll move on to something else. Catch that one on a plane.”
- “I don’t like to see everything, but honestly it gets to the point where, if a movie has such a low score on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ll see it for fun,” says Ryan, 23. “Like, The Emoji Movie, doesn’t that have like a zero percent? I really wanna go see it! Just like as a good time.”
- “If it’s in the teens,” says Joshua Beveridge, an animation director, “it’s pretty much a skip.”
- “We wanted to watch The Dark Tower,” says 16-year-old Josh, “but it had 19 percent, so we didn't watch it.”
There is, of course, a level of nuance that goes into every filmgoer’s decision-making. In Los Angeles, an industry town, there is an uncommon awareness of critical reception.
“We just saw The Dark Tower, and that got ripped to shreds," says Ryan, who uses Reddit’s r/movies, Indiewire, and The New York Times to read about movies. “It wasn’t, like, profoundly terrible. I don’t think it was a good movie, but I think when you see a percentage, you think of that as how good the movie is or something. Whereas it’s just a cumulative grouping of all the reviews. So, I think movies land on a narrower spectrum than the Tomatometer seems to indicate. Like, the best movies and the worst ones really aren’t as far apart as it probably looks.”
For critics, that complicates matters. The war for attention is increasingly intense and waged with outlandish headlines, social media framing, and criticism that relies on a wildly vacillating polarity of emotions.
“Being a critic in 2017 is no different than being a critic in any other time, but of course the sheer volume of content and noise out there means that it’s more important than ever to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Ehrlich says. “Every weekend it feels the future of cinema hangs in the balance because we’re fed that over and over and over again, and so there’s a real urgency behind this great indie, which eked out a festival run and is now in theaters. ‘Its box office gross this weekend could determine the future of all movies.’ … There’s a lot of Trojan horse–ing, writing articles and lists and whatnot in ways [that make] people click and then when they get there, the content might take them to places where they may not have gone otherwise.”
Audiences seem to have a sense that the Trojan horse is at their doorstep as well. Even those outside the industry know that not all reviews are created equal.
“I think, on the internet now, we’re getting to the stage where it seems like people enjoy either loving a film or hating a film,” says the 23-year-old filmgoer Ryan. “A lot of the gray area is disappearing. There’s a lot of ‘That was fine!’ That’s why Wonder Woman was kind of hard for me. Because I liked Wonder Woman. I enjoyed watching it. I didn’t think it was like—its importance to film can’t be [overstated]. But as a movie, I was like, ‘Yeah, it was solid, as far as superhero movies go.’ But I felt terrible having that opinion because in the way that things are communicated online, it had really built up this energy. You have an expectation of how you’re supposed to feel about it. And I felt like I was not understanding.”
Wonder Woman is among the best reviewed films of 2017, in addition to being a bona fide hit. Its score sits at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes right now. It is currently no. 57 on the site’s all-time top 100 movies. It’s joined by five other 2017 releases: Get Out (99 percent), The Big Sick (98 percent), Dunkirk (93 percent), Logan (93 percent), and Baby Driver (94 percent). Rotten Tomatoes describes the list’s purpose like this: “Movies with 40 or more critic reviews vie for their place in history at Rotten Tomatoes.” This means that on a site that measures The Wizard of Oz (no. 1, 99 percent) in the grand context of film history, six movies released this year are among the 100 best ever. This feels impossible, and yet, Rotten Tomatoes—which is for the fans, by the way—is increasingly film criticism’s paper of record.
How can we reconcile the outsize reputation—and vast financial success—of Wonder Woman relative to the nuances of film criticism? We can’t. But Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t care about that, per se, and neither do the studios, so long as you see their movies.
“Part of the thing that concerns the studios is they’ve been working very hard to control the information about movies and the discussion of movies as much as they can to kind of subordinate criticism to marketing and publicity and hype,” Scott says. “And anything that pushes against that and keeps attention on independent, unbought responses is a good thing.”
For filmmakers themselves, the very notion of criticism is confounding. I ask almost every director who appears on my podcast, The Big Picture, about reviews of their own work, and each one expresses a mixture of genuine dread and respect (grudging or otherwise) about criticism. Jonathan Levine, whose recent Amy Schumer comedy Snatched was saddled with a 35 percent score, described taking Xanax to go to sleep after a night spent reading reviews while discussing his complicated relationship to the site. “I internalize this shit,” he told me. “I’ll go to Rotten Tomatoes in an [obsessive] kind of way, and then at a certain point I'm just like, ‘Fuck it. I have to stop. I’m hurting myself.’ It’s like an addiction. I wish [Snatched] had gotten reviews, but it was made as a pop confection.”
Other filmmakers are more equanimous but sincere about the weight criticism unloads on its recipients.
“It's very hard to hear people say that you’re not good,” James Gray told me when I asked him about grappling with criticism while promoting The Lost City of Z (87 percent, by the way). "You don’t try to create a work of art, if I may be so bold, which nobody likes or nobody responds to.”
Filmmakers as disparate in style as Guy Ritchie, Taylor Sheridan, and David Lowery (A Ghost Story) told me they don’t read criticism of their movies anymore. Trey Edward Shults, a younger filmmaker, says he reads all of it. Not a single one has equated the success or failure of their films at the box office with critical reception.
“I’ve gotten good reviews most of my life,” Levine says. “I don’t want to discount those. So I have to kind of take it a little bit and just use it to move forward. Not that you make a movie to get good reviews, but it’s always nice.”
Conversely, critics rarely account for the potential box-office performance of a movie when reviewing it.
“I don’t think about [the box office] at all,” Scott says. “I don’t think about it in economic terms. If there’s a movie that I really like, that I really feel passionate about, I want people to see it, and I want my review to communicate some of that enthusiasm and make people stop reading and say, ‘Boy, that sounds great, I really want to see that.’ But I don’t think about that in terms of money or selling tickets or box office or anything like that. And I certainly don’t think, when I’m reviewing something negatively, either gleefully or regretfully about the box office. I just see my job as to give as clear and honest and readable and useful an account of what I think of the movie as I can.”
Rotten Tomatoes, then, finds itself trapped in a valley between its purpose and its power. To serve the fans with the insights of critics by way of the corporate stewardship of the very things being criticized feels like a tautological exercise. Instead, it’s a business plan—a growing business plan. As the film industry shrinks and reshapes itself, Rotten Tomatoes builds more loyalty and a bigger audience, and strikes more fear, founded or not.
“People don’t want to necessarily take the time to read a full review,” Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, told the L.A. Times. “They’d rather read the aggregate scores.”
As for Matt and Shannon, they still can't figure out the best way to decide on a movie together. Would a low score disincentivize them from seeing a movie?
“Like The Emoji Movie?” Shannon asks. “I would say yeah.”
“But you wouldn’t have seen the The Emoji Movie anyway,” Matt responds.
“I may have seen it with a kid or something! But if it’s a big studio release and it’s low? Yeah, no way. I’m not gonna go see it. Like, The Tower [sic: The Dark Tower]. I’m not gonna go see The Tower.”
Additional reporting by Jordan Coley.